Why Visual Storytelling?
So you meet someone at a party and you really want to remember their name. What do you do? One technique is to invent a visual trigger—like those memory geniuses on TV who meet 100 strangers, then recite back every single name without skipping a beat.
The technique works. For years I had trouble remembering the name of actor Don Cheadle (Traffic, Crash). So I created a mental snapshot of him standing under a railway bridge in Cheam—a city near London I knew as a kid. Cheam sounds enough like Cheadle that it jogs my memory to remember his name. I’ve never stumbled on it since.
But why does the technique work? Because most of us think in pictures (about two-thirds, according to Wikipedia), and because that snapshot of Cheadle in Cheam is a tiny story—a tiny movie, if you will. It’s no Oscar contender, but the brain doesn’t seem to care about that. The fact is, storytelling even of the most prosaic kind has a peculiar power to light up our brains.
Your Brain on Stories
Scientists are finding proof that our brains become more active when we either tell stories or listen to others telling them—be it in the form of a novel, a movie or simply listening to a friend share something they’ve experienced. This is not the case when information is presented in non-story form—bullet points on a PowerPoint slide, for instance.
A PowerPoint presentation can activate the language-processing parts of the brain that decode words into meaning (aka Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area). But when someone tells us a story, not only do the language-processing parts in our brain light up, but so too do any and all other parts of our brain that we would use if we were actually experiencing the events related in said story (according to brain scans by researchers in Spain).
Listen to someone raving about a delicious meal they had in a restaurant—or even simply read or hear richly metaphorical language, such as “her voice was gritty” or “he had iron forearms”—and your sensory cortex lights up. Words like “perfume” and “coffee” trigger activity in the primary olfactory cortex. Listen to someone telling an action- or motion-packed narrative—even with simple phrases like “he swung the bat” or “she kicked the ball”—and your motor cortex lights up.
The Way We're Wired
The brain, it appears, does not make much distinction between reading about, hearing about, or even dreaming about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. It’s the reason Fido’s lips and extremities twitch while he’s dreaming on the rug in front of the fire. A story can put your whole brain to work.
So what does this mean for content creators?
Bottom line, if you have a story to tell, the more visually you tell it—the more immersively you tell it—the more potent its impact on an audience will be. Why? Because it’s how we as human beings are wired. We dream in pictorial narratives, albeit often highly disjointed ones.
I've yet to meet anyone who dreams in PowerPoint.